Visitors returning to Portland this summer for its outdoor dining scene are in for a surprise.
The city, which was lenient about code enforcement at the height of the pandemic to help restaurants adjust to the loss of indoor seating, is no longer ignoring some health and safety codes now that restaurants are back to 100 percent of their indoor dining capacity.
It means there won’t be as much outdoor seating this summer as some restaurant owners wanted or expected.
“The rules seem to be changing on the fly,” Dock Fore owner Shaun McCarthy said. “It’s been frustrating.”
When restaurants couldn’t be at full indoor capacity, several streets downtown were either fully or partially closed starting in June 2020 – including parts of Exchange, Wharf, Dana, Milk, Fore, and Middle – to provide outdoor space and compensate for the lack of indoor seating.
But things are returning to normal after winter permits for outdoor seating expired in early April.
On Middle Street between Franklin and India streets, for example, where concrete barriers until recently carved out two-thirds of the street for outdoor dining, traffic began flowing normally on April 15. On Dana Street, between Fore and Wharf streets, a tiered outdoor deck built by Central Provisions is gone. And eastbound traffic is back on Fore Street at Boothby Square between Silver and Pearl streets, where that side of the cobblestone street was closed last year for use by Dock Fore and other restaurants.
McCarthy said he found out in February that his restaurant wouldn’t be allowed the same amount of outdoor seating as last year because the city is returning to enforcement of pre-pandemic regulations that require one toilet for every 50 men and two toilets for every 50 women – regardless of whether the diners are inside or outside.
He said he had assumed his outdoor dining permit would remain the same as last summer as long as he renewed it for the winter season. But that isn’t the case, and McCarthy isn’t the only restaurant owner who had that assumption.
At a Housing and Economic Development Committee meeting on April 19, Zachary Lenhert, licensing manager for the city, said many restaurant owners obtained outdoor dining permits for the past winter with the assumption that they could renew them for this summer.
“A lot of establishments are under the assumption that the way it worked during the pandemic is the way it’s continuing to work,” Lenhert said.
There was no notice from the city that permits from the winter wouldn’t be renewable. Instead, individual businesses are being given explanations about why their outdoor dining permits for the summer are being denied on a case-by-case basis, Lenhert said.
City Hall spokesperson Jessica Grondin said businesses in touch with city licensing staff would have been made aware of rules and regulations from the previous summer as well as when the city’s state of emergency ended. She said details of these changes were included in the text of the policies.
McCarthy, however, said the city’s communication about the upcoming summer was unclear. He said he wouldn’t have known about it if he hadn’t called the city manager’s office to check on his permit in February.
Dena Libner, chief of staff in the city manager’s office, said that in the midst of the pandemic, Portland was lax about plumbing and building codes when the priority became supporting struggling businesses.
Now businesses are facing the historically more strict code environment – and many don’t have the necessary plumbing or exits required to increase the capacity of their establishments, Libner said.
McCarthy said Dock Fore’s outdoor space in 2021 could seat more than 100 people. Now he said he’ll be lucky to fit 20 additional seats in a single parklet he has obtained.
“If they had told everybody back in November about this, there would have been plenty of time to close down (during the winter) and add bathrooms,” he said.
The city’s parklet program has also evolved during the pandemic. The parking spaces-turned-dining areas first became available in 2019, with a cap of five throughout the city. During the pandemic, however, eligibility restrictions were loosened and the application fee was reduced to about $1,100 from more than $5,500.
Now there is no cap on parklets, and eligibility is less restrictive, although individual businesses are still limited to a maximum of two parklets. The application fee for one parklet is $3,000; it’s $5,000 for two spaces.
City councilors at the April 19 committee meeting expressed some hope that outdoor dining in the city may still be expanded.
“Overall I think we are benefiting significantly from this program,” Councilor Andrew Zarro said, noting that businesses, in general, have learned to accommodate the parklet program.
Zarro said he’s in favor of continuing to build upon what the city calls its “Open Air Portland” concept to support outdoor dining. This includes the permanent closing to through traffic on Dana Street between Fore and Commercial streets, and on Milk Street between Exchange and Market.
City Hall spokesperson Grondin said the outdoor dining rules and regulations might be discussed again at a future Economic Development meeting.
But for now, diners expecting to eat and drink under a sunny or starry sky will have fewer options or may have to look elsewhere. Brunswick, for example, is doing the opposite of Portland: Allowing restaurants another year of expanded outdoor dining.
According to Brunswick Town Councilor Daniel Ankeles, the decision to maintain the expanded outdoor seating was unanimous.